Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Saint Elsewhere

The one thing I hate the most about living in Chicago is all the great art that I don’t get to see because it isn’t shown here. Of course a lot of great art—I define that as something I’m interested in or something that seems relevant to a large audience in one way or another—does indeed get shown here. Both work by people living here and by artists from around the world. But really, there is a whole 148,300,000 square km of land filled with art and we see a fraction of a clipping of a fingernail’s worth. People involved in the arts leave Chicago for any number of reasons. But I would have to say the fact that I can only read about the stuff I am really, truly most interested in is at the top of my list that has me constantly thinking about far off lands.

10 Tableaux and 14,952 Pages

Institutions and galleries in this city bring in a lot of art to the city that I am grateful for having the opportunity to see. But in this Midwestern Mecca it is largely safe work. “Safe” in the sense it is crowd-pleasing and inoffensive. I’m not saying I want Mapplethorpe and Serrano, although how often does that work, work 15 – 20 years old, get shown here? I’m thinking more of stuff that is just not very exciting (but is exciting to me). Something like an On Kawara show. I can only imagine the reaction from the general public, the populist newspapers and much of the vocal art crowd would have. So instead, were I able to afford it, I’d have to go to Dallas and see On Kawara: Ten Tableaux & 16,952 Pages. At a museum that in the past four years, among highlighting art from Texas, the Southwest region and crowd-pleasers like J.M.W. Turner has hosted exhibitions of work by Ellsworth Kelly; Robert Smithson; Jim Lambie; Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg; Robert Ryman; Allora & Calzadilla; Gabriel Orozco and Phil Collins.

Chicago has a lot of excellent shows come through, and a fair number originate here as well, but that is an impressive list Dallas has. And frankly the shows that do come aren’t of artists that I, personally, would die to see. If only the Ryman, or the Kawara had come to anywhere near Chicago. I have my own specific list of top of the heap artists, but I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of people here with their own favorites that are disappointed every time a traveling museum show they would love to see flies over head between coasts. And like me, a lot of us are too poor to travel. Or at least travel every time an interesting show comes up. Whereas were I living in New York I could have popped down the New Museum this past spring I could have seen Tomma Abts, an artist whose work I am immensely interested, especially after hearing her Society for Contemporary Art talk at the Art Institute, but have never had the pleasure of seeing in person. Something infinitely important to her body of work in it’s scale, installation and physical surface. And then I could have come back in May for a discussion between Tom Nozkowski and Dana Schutz about abstraction. Of course this fall is the Mary Heilmann retrospective, To Be Someone, which would also be great to see.

Again, these are choices that are not shared by all art lovers, but that is also the point. Chicago with it’s limited venues for art, specifically contemporary art, is forced to show a wide but shallow breadth of work. It’s also ridiculous to characterize Chicago as an entity in the same way it is to characterize New York as some singular brain trust hell bent on world domination. The community of art institutions here, though, must have an eye for what shows are coming up, and have come, and think diversification; both within their own programming, and at other venues. This may or may not be the result of a secret meeting held in the antechamber below the Hancock Building miles beneath the Earth’s surface at the crest of an inverted pyramid. At any rate, I see a cross section of what is out there between the various museums and art centers, but only occasionally something that really “kicks my ass.” In cities that are literally choking on art, you have more opportunities to see a lot more of the work you have an art boner for along with a lot more of all the other stuff. So even if I am not that into Banks Violette, I can see a big show of his work and know what the fuck is going on.

Tomma Abts • Lübbe • 2005 • 48x38cm • greengrassi

This isn’t something that will change any time soon. The new wing of the Art Institute promises to be a major boost, and I’m all for it. At least institutionally, Chicago seems on a steady, if all too slow, upward trend in presenting work from the outside world, but it’s nothing to hold your breath for. And that’s fine, this will never be a major art metropolis. Part of the local angst lies in this being a big world class city, we have the business, the architecture, the design, the science, why not art? Chicago is the middle child, bigger than the many small art centers that dot the map, but perpetually too runty to be counted amongst the megalopolises.

The other aspect of this that is so troubling is the peer pressure to drink the Kool-Aid and proclaim that Chicago is the real art capital. And believe me, it is nothing short of taking crazy pills to hold that belief. I have lived here in the city for 8 years, and spent my formative years in the south suburbs. I did a lot of growing up here as an artist and as whatever you categorize all the other ways I’m involved in art. And there is a point, many points, that you realize you are not “where it’s at” in the art world. This isn’t necessarily bad, and you can always move to where you think it’s at. Some prefer to not be there. Many successful international artists live here, or in that expanse we call Chicagoland. But you realize that, for all its strong points, this city is not number one. It’s not even number two anymore. It’s tied for third. You make peace, you say, “well, I’m here, so I’ll figure it out.” Or you decide to leave. Or you get this weird pressure that wants you deny your taste for video art or Jackson Pollock or whatever and replace it with the Imagists and proclaim from on high, “No! This is the greatest city with the greatest art on earth!” And then you end up part of any number of groups of people who come off a lot like Robert Mugabe’s government.

Surfing on Acid
Mary Heilmann • Surfing on Acid • 2005 • oil on canvas • 60x48in • Orange County Museum of Art

Have you ever seen his broadcasts from the Zanu-PF headquarters? The richest man with his rich loyal army addresses the nation on what looks like a cable access show from 1982 in a country where a pair of shoes costs a billion dollars. That is an extreme comparison because Mugabe is a dictator with blood on his hands and with Chicago it’s just art. But the image of a senile old man clinging ever more violently to a delusion that the rest of the world can see for all its absurdity is pretty apt for many aspects of the scene here in Chicago.


Anonymous said...

Good post. My problem with it is, where's the specifics? You say Chicago is safe, but I don't live there and know there's a lot more to it than that. It's easy to be Saint Elsewhere. Just out of sight is the real world. Try looking where you are some more, all those artists coming at you in waves, and try writing off else.

I'm in Seattle, and nobody who makes lists puts it on one. Who cares about lists? Everything happens all at once and together. There are places I wouldn't want to be stuck in, but Chicago isn't one of them, and neither is Seattle. Cheer up. Really. Regina Hackett

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying but I think you are focusing on what you would like to see here, rather than what's here even if it doesn't match your taste. I mean there's the Hockney show at the Arts Club which won't be shown anywhere else in the US, the Jeff Koons show will only show here as well. It remains to be seen what the new director at the MCA will do, but the Eliasson show is coming here. The Art Institute's FOCUS shows have been excellent and have brought in artists from aboard and in the US: William Pope.L, Mario Ybarra, Jr., James Bishop, etc. The Art Institute also originated Jasper Johns' "Gray" and "Edward Hopper", two major shows. The Richard Gray Gallery had the premier of Alex Katz's new work, Donald Young showed Mark Wallinger's work the year he won the Turner Prize (whatever that might mean) and it was his first major US gallery show.

On the plus side of being "safe" as you put it, we haven't had to witness any cringe-inducing work by Hirst, Emin, Chapman, et al.

I'm not trying to force any Kool-Aid on you, but I think that while it is important to point out the artists that should come to Chicago, it's also important to keep in mind the artists that do show here.

J. Thomas said...

Yeah, Erik, I appreciate you with all my heart, but have to say, I'm really glad you aren't in charge of the cultural schedule in this town. I agree that the Mario Ybarra and William Pope.L shows are great additions to the city and the MCA looks primed to take a dramatic turn for the better. Plus, "smaller" institutions that litter the landscape (i.e. The Renaissance Society, Suburban, HPAC, etc..) make the city bearable.

If I were to permit you some leeway, I'd say that the gallery scene is limited and the arts as whole lack a "weirdness" factor that tends to make cities wonderful to be in - But those weird institutions tend to flourish in the smaller markets, not the mega-art-metropolii. I'm thinking of Houston, with the Art Car Museum, Orange Show, Museum of Weird, Project Row Houses, etc.. Or a place like Seattle, which Regina's writing has made me really interested in, despite its inability to top lists.

Me thinks that you equate quantity with quality. And while there's some room to make that argument, in this case, I'd just have to say that if you search more, you can find artists and institutions that might make your heart stop. And in our global world, you can "experience" the magic of the larger centers from afar.

Mark Staff Brandl said...

As you know, Erik, you and I have some rather diametrically opposed tastes. In light of that, I've got to give it to you that you described the situation rather dead-on in this post, at least the situation as I see it, with some small differences of opinion. Good post.